Spring is here, which means two things for me as a Canadian living in Japan: maple syrup and sakura. Did you know that Maple syrup season in Canada happens almost at the same time as the cherry blossoms in Japan each year? If it wasn’t for a worldwide pandemic completely shattering our traditions as well as our sanity at times, maple flavored brunch parties would be happening in Eastern Canada at our sugar shacks, and picnics with bentos and alcohol under cherry blossoms in parks would be enjoyed all around Japan as I’m writing these words. Alas, we’ve been living in strange times for a while now and all we can do is to enjoy both of these seasonal events from afar, even though this doesn’t seem to stop most people from still enjoying the sakuras here. Since we are still relatively stuck at home and because March and spring are already here, I thought it was the perfect timing to talk to you about two japanese terms that are more related to each other than you might think; mono no aware (物の哀れ) and hanami (花見).
If Christmas is a major tradition and a big deal in December in Canada, wait until you see the cherry blossom fever happening in March and April here in Japan. It goes without a doubt that the light pink flowers are exquisite, but why is it such an event every year that an entire nation absolutely gush over some blossoming trees? The reason goes deeper than the prettiness of some flowers or the festive ambience and you’ll need a better understanding of Japanese culture and history to fully grasp this phenomena and the reason why those trees became the emblem of this country.
First thing first, we need to explain perhaps the less known term out of the two, the mono no aware. When you study Japanese culture and language, you quickly realise that there are a lot of intriguing terms and idioms unique to the very own Japanese sentiments and to their ideologies. Perhaps you have come across before on your last trip to Japan, while surfing the web or simply unexpectedly stumbled upon one of those peculiar, unfamiliar Japanese words in an article you’ve read sometime ago. I’m not talking here about Japanese loan words omnipresent now in other languages such as “Samurai” or “Ninja”, but about terms that go a little bit deeper into the culture and the history of the land of sushi. Do words like “Wabi-sabi”, “Ikigai”, or perhaps more up-to-date and society-oriented words like “Otaku” or “Karoshi” ring a bell to you? It’s fine if it doesn’t, I know Japanese culture is not nearly as popular overseas as I pictured it to be in my head, especially considering the blunt fact that I tend to surround myself almost exclusively with other people into Japanese and East Asian cultures as I am. What I take as basic knowledge about Japan probably isn’t quite the same level as it can be ten of thousand kilometers away. It’s okay. After all, isn’t it the reason I created this blog in the first place; to introduce you to the lesser known parts of the Japanese culture and of its traditions? For this reason, I should probably introduce to you at least a few of those terms, idioms and proverbs, and considering that it is finally Sakura season, I should probably be starting with my all time favorite; Mono no aware, which is actually a term particularly used when studying about Japanese traditional literature. As an avid fan of Japanese literature works, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I hold this term quite close to my heart.
But what is the correlation between me randomly starting to talk about Japanese literature terms and the Sakura? Well, my answer lies in the hanami, the second term I want to talk about and, in my opinion, the biggest event in all of Japan. With spring rolling in March slowly coming to its end, it has already been a few weeks now, even over a month actually, that the sakura themed and flavored goods started dominating the scenery here and I’ve naturally catched the fever as well. Have you ever wondered why the cherry blossoms are such a big part of Japan’s identity? Sure, when you think of the country, the first things to pop out in your head would probably be sushi, Pokemon and maybe even geisha and sumo (To be honest, same here), but chances are you know just as much or even more about the popularity of the cherry blossoms, also known as Sakura (桜). In Japan, around the same time each year, the sakura frenzy starts and almost everywhere you go, I swear you’ll only see, smell and taste pink for a few weeks. As a tradition, when the trees are in full bloom, families, friends and coworkers will gather and revel in parks all around the town, sit down on blue tarps under the lovely cherry blossoms for a barbecue, a picnic or a simple bento, all the while enjoying alcohol or tea with their loved ones. Every year in Tokyo, a lot of locations known for their sakura trees such as the Naka-Meguro river or other famous parks will hold sakura festivals, put up lanterns and serve typical hanami food like karaage (fried chicken) and hanami dango (sweet tricolored mochi rice balls) from their food carts or tents known here as yatai (屋台) . (That is, under normal circumstances, not like 2020 or this year either. For the second year in a row, outings and picnics are strictly prohibited in parks and public popular spots.) This traditional event is known as hanami, and takes place all over Japan from the middle of March to the beginning of May, depending on where you are exactly in this long, vertical country. The sakura flowers are such a big deal over here, you’ll probably still see snippets of the flowers all year round in the souvenirs you buy or in the various decorations that you might come across while shopping.
The importance of the Sakura lies in the fact that they represent a significant symbol for the Japanese culture and their philosophy on life. The Sakura season is extremely short in Japan; within the space of a week or two, they slowly blossom, reach an almost enchanting full bloom for a few days before quickly withering and falling down in a snow of petals dancing with the wind. And then just like that they are gone until the next enchanting rendezvous the following year.
The Japanese are known to have cherished those flowers and their fleeting beauty for centuries, practicing Hanami as far back as the Nara period (710-794 AD), although it wasn’t until the Heian period (794-1185) and the rise of literature and poetry that the appreciation for the transient things truly became an essential and central piece of the Japanese philosophy as we still know it today. During the Edo period in the 18th century, the scholar Motoori Norinaga (which my Japanese husband doesn’t even know anything about, so I guess he’s not important?) pinpointed the term of Mono no aware while annotating important works of traditional literature such as the Man’yōshu, the Tale of Genji and the Kojiki, which all contain passages and poems expressing this deep appreciation, sometimes even melancholy and sorrow, towards the bittersweet and ephemeral beauty in life, the pathos of things. Mono no aware is a little bit similar to the artistic symbol of Memento Mori, the inevitability of death, that you find in Western art, if you like. Naturally, the Sakura during the hanami season, for their short-lived existence and their exquisite fleeting beauty, always were the ultimate symbol of that poignant sentiment towards the impermanence of everything, also known as this mono no aware in Japanese literature. Do you see now where I’m getting at?
Of course, it’s a little (a lot) far-fetched to say that the hanami, the most popular event of the year in Japan, based its entire reputation on profound literary origins or its delicate beauty. Like everywhere else around the world, only a fraction of people in a country are interested and study about literature. However, what is something that most cultures and societies’ foundations are built upon, each one to various degrees? You guessed it; traditions and religion. After all, it’s almost inconceivable to talk about culture without mentioning religion. Japanese culture is really no exception to this rule.
The idea of the impermanence of things from which the mono no aware is based upon is actually a philosophical concept coming from Buddhism, one of the two major religions in Japan with Shintoism, dating as far back as when it was first introduced in the 6th century. This term, also known in Japanese as Mujō (無常), describes the idea that everything in existence is continuously subject to change. The Mujō, the impermanence of things, is what the sentimentality of the mono no aware centers around. As with the transient beauty of the Sakura, it is specifically because things are ephemeral that they can hold the power of stirring up in you those deep, humane emotions. After all, our life too, is ephemeral. Like the flowers of the cherry trees, soon we will also return to dust. Therefore, the hanami season is more than just a social event that occurs every year; it is a time to stop in our swamped routines and cherish the beauty of the present moment, for our journey on this Earth is very short. As for the maple syrup season I talked about in the beginning, there is no real deep meaning like it is the case with the hanami in Japan; our only purpose is to enjoy getting fat, life is too short for diets and silly visual appreciation of things, bring on the maple flavored bacon! (Come to think of it, our lives might be already shortened drastically with all that sugar and cholesterol…)
I think it is probably for this moving and inspiring lesson behind the hanami and the mono no aware that this topic was so high on my list of things about Japan I wanted to share. Everyone might be talking about sakura right now and it’s truly amazing to see my Instagram feed full of pink and flowers, but I strongly believe that there is so much beauty to them once you know about their meaningful history. Probably since I love writing and reading so much, the mono no aware has always been something that crazily captivated me ever since I first heard about it in Fall of 2014, back when I was sitting in my traditional Japanese literature class in university, literally drinking in my teacher’s words. As for the hanami and the sakura, who can resist the charm of stunning trees full of flowers with a pink hue, with or without all this random knowledge I just vomited to you? They truly look magical, especially if you can enjoy them with friends or someone you love and appreciate the moment. Plus, they don’t make you fat like maple syrup does, so there’s that. Nonetheless, there are always specific times every year when I begin to feel particularly homesick. Apple season in September, the October colors and the pumpkin flavored everything fever, Christmas with my family, the Maple season in March… I do miss a good sugar shack brunch drenched in maple syrup if I’m being completely honest. The small potatoes, the beans, the ham, the decadent crepes, the sweet maple taffy on a bed of pristine white snow…
Just as magical as pink cherry blossoms with a can of crisp cold beer and juicy karaage!
– Lisa Poirier
✥ Maple & Sakura ✥
Disclaimer: All the pictures used are mine. (Except for the art, of course)